Our phone alarms went off at 7:30, and we slowly emerged from the warm sheets. The AC wasn’t working last night and it was too hot, so I by mistake broke the window trying to crack it open for some fresh air.
We dressed ourselves with the window wide open, letting in frigid gusts of wind.
After a quick breakfast we carried our luggage into 8 inches of winter wonderland, and set off shortly in the birder mobile.
Once we got going, we began to feel the adrenaline of our second leg of the trip. There were several spots we had planned to stop at in and around Richmond for waterfowl before setting off for Northern Virginia.
We pulled over on the side of the road to look at a large flock of Redheads and Ring-necked Ducks before returning to the van. After several minutes we arrived at a park with a large pond covered with waterfowl. We raised our binoculars to find a couple hundred domestic geese and mallards.
Another stop, this time on the James, provided zero species due to the river being frozen.
We were running out of luck, and made our way to Brown’s Island, a riverside park in Downtown Richmond.
The sidewalk led to a long walking bridge that crossed the James, so we continued onto it, straddling the edge of the tranquil, iced-over river to the right, and the chaotic, rocky rapids to the left.
The bitter-cold wind burnt our faces as we scanned the distant gull flocks for rarities. American Black Ducks, Mallards, and hybrids of the two were tossed around in the rushing waters just below us.
It became unbearably cold, so we retreated to the van.
We left the city limits and arrived at Swift Creek Reservoir, a good duck spot in Midlothian. The majority of the lake was frozen.
A Mallard lit up by the snow
The birds were far too distant, so we drove to a second vantage point across the reservoir.
The second spot provided Canvasback, scaup, and lots of American Coot, Hooded Mergansers, and Northern Shovelers. A group of Bald Eagles stood on the ice, watching the nearby raft of ducks.
Next stop was The Walmart Supercenter in Colonial Heights, often affectionately referred to as the “Gullmart” by Virginia birders.
We arrived to find about a thousand Ring-billed Gulls standing on the frozen over pond, with another several hundred circling above the nearby landfill. Within thirty seconds of beginning the scan, Tucker spotted a white-winged gull, which after finding the bird was identified as an Iceland Gull (kumlien’s).
We also found a Laughing/Franklin’s Gull, which was identified as just a Laughing Gull after it raised its head.
Hand-feeding Ring-billed Gulls Cheez-its was another highlight.
We completed our route for the Richmond area, so we set our GPS for a rural farm in King William County: the Say’s Phoebe spot.
This time, we drove over to the correct side of the property, and began the search. Huntings dogs barked loudly, driving flocks of creepers, chickadees, and nuthatches out of the area. Some dogs were friendlier than others, and one individual befriended us during our search.
We split into groups to search, and my curious friend stayed at my heels. I scanned the cedars, cow patties, and even a junco and bluebird roost under a shed for the phoebe.
Our long search proved unsuccessful, so we began the next leg of our journey to Northern Virginia. We arrived at our hotel in Alexandria, and spent the evening playing cards and eating snacks from the vending machine.
The day started early, as all birding days start. We hit the ground running, arriving at Occoquan Regional Park shortly after sunrise. A Glaucous Gull had been continuing here, but our morale was lessened when we only found a some Ring-billed Gulls, Canada Geese, Redhead, and a Red-breasted Merganser on the Occoquan River.
Nonetheless, the big, bold, and beautiful white-winged gull was right there. The entire flock was then flushed by a Bald Eagle.
The Glaucous Gull flew by in the morning light, offering amazing views.
We left the gull after a while and arrived shortly at Pohick Bay a Regional Park. The park was simply a boat ramp and dock with an expansive view of a large section of the Potomac River.
Scopes were unloaded and we walked out into the dock, finding a couple hundred ducks on a small portion of open water surrounded by ice.
The raft was primarily aythya ducks: Redhead, Ring-necked, and both scaup species.
After only five minutes of picking through the flock, Gabriel yelled, “I think I have a Tufted!” Shocked, Baxter quickly found the bird in his own scope, saying that the bird was a hybrid with a scaup due to the gray back and short tuft.
I eventually got on the bird and had horrible views. The three of us tried to help Ezra, Theo, and Tucker get on the bird but lost the chance. The eagles started to become more active, and the ducks began to stir before taking off and flying upriver. The moment was bittersweet.
We began to walk after the flock, and came across a duck hunter who said that there were tens of thousands of ducks a little further upriver, and that some of his friends were already out on the river hunting.
Knowing that all of those birds were going to be flushed down to us, we excitedly continued up the river to a better observation point. There, several thousand ducks sat on the ice and water, and swarms of hundreds flew toward us, fleeing from the hunters.
In awe, we started looking for interesting ducks in the masses. Thousands of aythya ducks floated on the water, and Tundra Swans flew overhead.
Gunshots were heard upriver, and after a few seconds, swarms of pintail, gadwall, wigeon, and black duck approached.
After having picked through the flock fairly thoroughly, Baxter, Gabriel, and I got down to business. We started a tape and assigned species to one another. Each of us counted individuals of a species by scope glasses, and then dictated our counts into the microphone.
We found a red headed Eurasian Wigeon amongst a sea of green headed American Wigeons.
Every few minutes we switched shifts, and those who had scanned returned to the van to warm up.
After about an hour of this, we finished our counts, and had tallied up about four thousand Redhead. Approximately two thousand individuals of each of the following species were counted; Ring-necked Duck, American Black Duck, and Gadwall; one thousand for Canvasback and Lesser Scaup; around five hundred for Northern Pintail and American Wigeon; smaller numbers of Greater Scaup, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Bufflehead, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Common Goldeneye, and Ruddy Duck; and one individual for Eurasian Wigeon and Tufted Duck x Scaup sp.
We were quite impressed with our numbers, and had seen another ten thousand unidentifiable ducks on the opposite side of the river.
Our celebration of a successful duck outing commenced at Five Guys, with burgers, fries, and shakes.
Our stomachs full, we set off for Laurel Hill Equestrian Center. There we looked for a long-continuing Clay-colored Sparrow, a bird I saw at the end of last year, but one we all wanted to get on our 2018 yearlists nice and early. We were successful.
We headed west to Sully Woodlands to search for the Northern Shrike that has called the park it’s home for two winters.
The little predatory songbird was nowhere to be found; the sparrows and finches did not live in fear, more evidence that the masked butcher wasn’t present.
We thought it was worth checking the other park the shrike was occasionally visited, but had the same luck.
As evening approached, we continued to Dulles Airport, entered the parking garage, and ascended to the top floor. We had a 360 degree view of runways, terminals, and open fields.
Several Short-eared Owls worked the fields. Then, a white beacon appeared in the distance: a Snowy Owl in flight. We had found what we were looking for, and watched it as it soared down the runway, before setting back down in the ground.
My best Snowy Owl photo
Once it reached dusk, the winds picked up, and my scope tipped over: the final blow. The internal lens had been knocked ajar, and my beloved scope had been reduced to a maraca.
We had a strong craving for ethnic food, and seeked out a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. The plates were meant for sharing, and the carnivores in the group (me and Baxter) feasted on lamb, beef, chicken, and a variety of vegetables on injera.
A good end of the day.
We woke up exhausted. The usual packing of things began, but this was our last morning.
Back at Sully Woodlands, we found no shrike.
We returned to Dulles parking garage in hopes of seeing Rough-legged Hawks. Within a couple minutes of scanning, the ones with scopes spotted an extremely distant hawk. Once it banked, it appeared to be all black, and had a strong dihedral and acrobatic flight: a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk! Here is the best photo I could manage:
A black speck
Satisfied, we headed west into the Shenendoah Valley, arriving at Sky Meadows State Park: specifically, the Bridle Trail.
We got out of the van and walked over to a nearby silo, stuck our heads in an opening, and ticked off Barn Owl for our yearlists.
A triggered Barn Owl
As I was playing around with my settings and trying to get a sharp photo, I heard Gabriel and Ezra yell “Golden Eagle!” I quickly squirmed out of the silo and Baxter and I ran as quickly as possible. We arrived, panting, to find everyone staring at a gorgeous young Golden Eagle circling high above the rolling grasslands.
Look at that gorgeous golden nape and those white wing patches and tail band
The bird ascended until it was out of view, a good rarity for Fauquier County. We continued to Blandy Experimental Farm and Arboretum.
We parked and got out, checking the towering conifers for roosting Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls. The nearby feeders were active with chickadees, woodpeckers, and jays.
We walked out to a meadow and then to a small wetland, where we hoped to find American Tree Sparrows. It was relatively quiet, so we walked over to another spot for them.
The rolling fields dotted with cedars hosted few birds, only a mockingbird and Turkey Vultures. We had been searching for a long time, and were about to give up. Then, we suddenly flushed a group of a dozen sparrows that called in flight; they gave the distinctive call of the tree sparrow.
We pursued them, and got good yet brief views of the striking birds. I only managed a poor photo of one bird’s rear end.
Having gotten all of our targets for Blandy and Sky Meadows, we decided to head down the Shenendoah Valley to Rockingham and Augusta counties: Gabriel’s stomping grounds.
Just after leaving Blandy and turning onto Route 17, we spotted a hawk flying just above the roof of our van. Those who had the left seats of the van were able to catch a better glimpse of the bird suddenly said “Rough-legged Hawk! Rough-legged Hawk! Pull the car over!”
Seconds later we were all standing on the side of the road, watching as the apparition hovered twenty feet above the highway median: a juvenile light morph Rough-legged Hawk.
He landed momentarily on the side of the road before lifting back up and flying off.
Completely enthralled, we posted it on the listserv, and discovered it was only the fourth Clarke County record.
We ate lunch at McDonalds. I only had five dollars left, so I hesitantly tried a cheap Filet O’ Fish. I talked with some local waterfowl hunters who had seen some Snow Geese at a nearby pond. We would’ve liked to go see them, but were loosing daylight.
Back on the road, we drove down 81 through the Shenendoah Valley, with the Blue Ridge to the east, and the Appalachian to the west.
We entered the quaint town of Dayton, where horse-drawn Amish buggies and automobiles coexisted. The road continued through to Silver Lake, a small lake just outside of the town.
The near side of the lake was quite busy; the banks were dotted with the unattended bikes of Amish, who were skating on the thick ice and fishing into the open waters.
The far side was made up of thin ice and open waters, which were covered with ducks. Mallards dominated the scene, followed by the Gadwall. There were some Northern Pintails, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup, and our primary target, a Long-tailed Duck that was actively feeding. We walked out onto the ice to get a little closer to the ducks: it was completely frozen to the lake bottom.
Our next stop, just down the road, was Edgebrier Park. We walked past some Muscovy Ducks and under a bridge, where we found a large flock of Canada Geese on the river. Closer inspection revealed the birds we were looking for: 37 Greater White-fronted Geese, and the high count for the state.
Greater White-fronted Geese
Back in the car, we raced the sun to Fishersville Rock Quarry, a body of water so deep, that isn’t doesn’t freeze over. We walked up the hill, finding many assorted ducks, Canada Geese, and one Cackling Goose.
East to Waynesboro, we were on our way to the location of a continuing Trumpeter Swan. We arrived to find that the gorgeous, all white swan had stuck around for us.
A banded Trumpeter Swan
After admiring the rare beauty, we headed to our final birding location of the trip: the Invista Ponds. Simply the entrance road to a fiber power plant, the ponds hosted Black-crowned Night-Herons. We found two of them within a few minutes.
We departed and met Gabriel and Ezra and Theo’s dads at the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch. We had found 124 species during the five days, and travelled all across the state: from Virginia Beach to Clarke County. We had endured freezing tempatures: all the way down to windchills of -8 degrees.
The birders and the van
Ezra, Theo, and Gabriel departed, and the Beamers and I headed east.
Dinner was at Crozet Pizza. Baxter and I shared the “Loaded Fries”, in honor of the traditional “Mega Fries” we never got to eat in Chincotegaue.
We made it back to Charlottesville, ending a truly epic birding trip.